Boris Yeltsin - Russia’s first popularly elected president - declared Monday that he will step aside when his term expires in 2000, clearing the way for a pack of candidates already jockeying to succeed him.
Yeltsin’s recent health problems and a two-term limit in the constitution already had appeared to rule out a third term for the Russian leader. But his sudden announcement at a Moscow school still caught many by surprise.
“My term ends in 2000. I will not run anymore,” Yeltsin told children and teachers on the first day of classes at School No. 1253.
Looking upbeat and smiling, the 66-year-old Yeltsin said younger, more energetic people would be needed to run the country in the future.
“We have a very good team - a good, friendly and intelligent team,” he said, suggesting that his preferred successor would come from within his own administration.
Yeltsin, who underwent heart surgery last year and suffered a bout of pneumonia early this year, returned to full-time duty several months ago. He appears in good health and no one questions his intention to serve out the final three years of his current term.
Yeltsin has kept up an active schedule, pushing the government to complete free-market reforms, while repeatedly locking horns with the communists and nationalists in Parliament.
The Russian economy, which has been in a free fall for most of the 1990s, is stabilizing, although millions of Russians are mired in poverty and only modest growth is forecast in the coming years.
The 1993 Russian constitution limits a president to two terms, but some Yeltsin supporters reportedly had been looking for ways to allow him to seek a third, four-year term. However, there had been no indication that Yeltsin himself wanted to find a way around the constitutional limit.
There is already a large group of potential presidential candidates for 2000, although none could be considered a front-runner at present.
In Yeltsin’s administration, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin may pursue the job, though he has never fared well in opinion polls. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov is the country’s most popular politician, according to several recent polls, though at 37 some think he is too young and inexperienced.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, defeated by Yeltsin in presidential runoff election in 1996, is likely to run again. But most analysts view the Communist Party as being in decline because the majority of its supporters are elderly and it holds little appeal for the young.
Alexander Lebed, a gruff-talking former general, finished a strong third in the first round of the 1996 presidential balloting. But he was dismissed as Yeltsin’s national security chief last fall, and has since struggled to maintain his visibility.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is hugely popular in the capital, but many other Russians resent the concentration of wealth and power in Moscow, and it’s unclear whether his appeal extends to the provinces.